Panic Room (2002)

D: David Fincher
S: Jodie Foster, Forest Whittaker

Lacklustre thriller from director David Fincher (Fight Club) and screenwriter by David Koepp (The Lost World, Spider-Man) which expends extensive financial and creative resources on material which would have been knocked out in half the time on a fraction of the budget by a B-movie hack sixty years ago to better effect. Recently separated Jodie Foster purchases an extravagant Central Park home for her and diabetic daughter Kirsten Stewart. The house comes with a unique feature, an impregnable 'panic room' equipped with video monitors, survival gear, and independent phone line. On the family's first night in residence, a trio of villains comes to call (Forest Whittaker, Dwight Yoakam, and Jared Leto) in search of hidden treasure which, lo and behold, is to be found in the panic room, where (naturally) Foster and Stewart have retreated to upon the arrival of their uninvited guests. A face off ensues in which conflicts between the criminals offer most of the drama in Treasure of the Sierra Madre style.

The premise is not especially promising at first glance, but the line up of behind the scenes talent is impressive enough to suggest that it might go somewhere. With Se7en at the top of a fairly brief filmography, Fincher has credibility enough to assume he could bring a keen eye for both superficial and analytical detail. Koepp is professional enough to know how to push the relevant buttons, so a scenario as familiar and predictable as this should be a snap. Add to the mixture the return of Se7en cinematographer Darius Khondji with the joint participation of cinematographic veteran Conrad Hall, Fight Club editor Jim Haygood (with Angus Wall), and composer Howard Shore (Se7en, The Game) and you would seem to have one of those classic auteur situations in which a talented cineaste with a group of regular (and equally talented) collaborators brings big league style and art to a generic film. After all, what little interest The Game commanded came from such a combination.

The film begins with a lovely title sequence, then quickly demonstrates a fascination with space which one presumes will continue to provide Fincher, his cinematographers, and the production designers with plenty to work with. Throughout the opening scenes we are introduced to the location in which the action is to take place as the widescreen frame meanders around the extraordinarily spacious house in pursuit of Foster and daughter as they (and we) survey the space. Curiously though, as the narrative unfolds, relatively little use is made of it. Though scenes are staged throughout the building, there is no real sense of spatial unease or visual tension to complement the action. The only thing close to an image system in the film is the numbingly repetitive use of the panic room itself to suggest enclosure (Foster's character is initially vaguely claustrophobic, but this characteristic disappears from the plot after a while almost as if Koepp has lost interest in it).

Lacking resonance on a visual level is merely the first and most evident weakness of the picture. This deficiency impoverishes all that follows, but probably would not matter so much if the film at least told a rollicking good story. Unfortunately, the film's other weaknesses mostly revolve around the script. There really is not enough going on in the story to sustain the narrative. With a touch of invention, this story of two women trapped in a confined space by three men might have had all kinds of angles, but Koepp seems to have spent most of his time figuring out excuses rather than reasons to keep the story going. Once the villains realise they can't get into the room, they try to figure out how to get the women out of it. The result is a sequence of Wile E. Coyote-like disasters which lead to mounting tensions between the villains. The sheer dullness of this plot is bad enough, but the thematic shallowness of it all is fatal. Fincher concentrates on staging the action scenes and ensuring that the all-too bland machinations are explained step by step for those who think the film is actually too complicated.

The cinematically bland exposition of a trite story is at least initially offset by some unusual quirks in the characterisation of the villains. Unfortunately the relationships between these men are ultimately all too ordinary. Whittaker's intelligent, thoughtful techno-whiz will inevitably face off against the twitchy guy in the balaclava, and the former will of course eventually become sympathetic. We know it very quickly, but we wait along time to see it happen and there is little enough motivation to wait around for it. The dialogue exchanges on the subject of social class and masculinity which fill out the time are not particularly fresh, and are interrupted by action scenes which are equally hackneyed, not to mention repetitive. The belated introduction of a fourth male in the person of Patrick Bauchau (as Foster's estranged husband) is pointless story-wise and so predictable from a thematic point of view that it is all the more surprising that nothing is really done with him.

Some attempt is made to confound expectation by having its twin heroines act in relatively rational ways. Given the situation as it is set up, Foster and daughter respond with sound judgment and quiet calm. We must presume this is an attempt to redress the balance of countless generic action films by offering a female lead who is neither in need of nor requiring the support of a masculine hero (cue the introduction of the husband, who gets beaten up and sits strapped to a chair for the rest of the story). The problem here is that while appealing on a high concept level, this particular gambit has the effect of robbing the film of any potential drama. Foster's claustrophobia, as mentioned, simply vanishes, and the sub plot about her daughter's diabetes becomes a set up for Whittaker's act of charity in the most insultingly simplistic way possible. An attempt to give Stewart's character a share of the self-determination required to resolve the narrative involving insulin needles ultimately turns out to be a distended red herring. Ironically though, the film eventually falls right back on the oldest reversal in the book to provide it with its final moments, and rather than provide a frisson, the last minute twist induces yawns which last as long as it takes to put your coat on and leave the theatre.

Panic Room is a distended misfire; bloated yet undernourished, over the top but dull. Though it sounds like it might be an entertaining time filler for the undemanding punter, most viewers will probably be bored. There is certainly more entertainment in the likes of Walter Hill's Trespass or Stephen Hopkins' Judgment Night, and a great deal more of genuine interest in any of Fincher's other films, even, for all its inanities, The Game. Avoid.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.